Shutting Down SARS Won’t End Nigeria’s Security Crisis

The military and vigilante groups may step in where police have failed—and their human rights records are just as bad.

A protester waves the Nigerian national flag while gathering with other protesters to barricade the Lagos-Ibadan expressway.
A protester waves the Nigerian national flag while gathering with other protesters to barricade the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

Weeks of protests by young people against police brutality convinced Nigeria’s government to disband its controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit, but the move may not be the victory for the protesters that it appears to be. In fact, disbanding SARS may ironically lead to more, not less, armed security presence on Nigeria’s streets

Although Nigeria suffers from much violent insecurity, it is actually an underpoliced society. The country already has a shortage of police officers, and if their number is further reduced, the government may once again (as it usually does) call on the Army to substitute for, or support, the police. This could lead to more clashes between the Army—which has also been accused of human rights abuses—and civilians.

In an Orwellian sounding statement reminiscent of Nigeria’s era of military rule, the Army has already warned “subversive elements and trouble makers” among the protesters that “it remains highly committed to defend the country and her democracy at all cost.”

Historically, Nigeria’s military has often been the cause of—and solution for—the country’s problems. When Nigeria’s military dictatorship resigned in 1999, much-needed security sector reforms were overlooked due to the relief at finally having a democratically elected civilian government after 29 years of military rule.

During the military era, the security forces engaged in corruption, torture, summary executions of suspects, and extortion of civilians. There was no transitional justice or accountability for these crimes and the incoming civilian government swept them under the rug. This created a precedent of impunity for abuses by the security forces.

Nigerian police also lost much efficiency and morale as military governments marginalized, underequipped, and underfunded them. Military rulers instead entrusted to soldiers basic law enforcement duties such as mounting checkpoints and fighting armed robbery and kidnapping. When military rule ended, the Army was unable to get its soldiers off the streets because Nigeria suffers from twin deficits in the areas of policing quantity and quality.

Nigeria does not have enough police officers to patrol the entire country, and the officers it has cannot not be relied upon to suppress the country’s crime and insecurity. Although Nigeria has approximately 370,000 police officers, over 150,000 of them are employed as escorts or guards for VIPs. In other words, more than 40 percent of the police are not actually protecting the public but instead are protecting VIPs from the public.

Nigeria’s ratio of one police officer to every 540 civilians is well below the United Nations’ recommended ratio of one police officer per 450 citizens. Many of those who remain on policing duties are not fit for purpose. Twelve years ago, a presidential committee report on police reform bluntly stated that the police force is “saddled with a very large number of unqualified, under-trained and ill-equipped officers and men many of whose suitability to wear the respected uniform of the Force is in doubt.”

The inability of the police to contain crime waves and multiple communal insecurity outbursts resulted in the government continually deploying military units to reinforce or substitute for police formations across the country. As a result, the military spends much of its time conducting police duties such as combating armed robbery, kidnappings, and tackling ethnic, religious, and other communal riots.

The shortage of police has led to a highly militarized society in which soldiers are scattered in civilian spaces throughout the country. As recently as 2017, the Army was deployed on internal security operations in 32 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

A former chief of army staff said that “It is not normal … in Nigeria today, the armed forces are the ones doing the duties of the police.” The military has already responded to the anti-SARS protests by offering to deploy in Nigeria’s most populous city, Lagos, where police shot unarmed protesters last week. Soldiers are by no means a gentler alternative to the police and often have to defend themselves from accusations of using excessive force against civilians.

Some Nigerians have reacted to the dearth of competent security forces by creating vigilante groups. Although such vigilante groups are illegal, they are popular in many communities for the swift and ruthless manner in which they dispense of criminals. However, the untrained young men who volunteer for these vigilante groups sometimes lapse into the same sorts of abuse that make the police unpopular.

Without forensic and investigative training, vigilante groups often use torture to extract confessions, condemn criminals to death based on mere suspicion, or hire themselves out to settle disputes between private parties.

The addition of vigilantes further complicates Nigeria’s security matrix. Police, soldiers, and vigilantes simultaneously patrolling Nigeria’s streets and engaged with the same professed aim of combating crime are likely to increase the risk of further clashes between civilians and state security forces.

Disbanding SARS will be a tiny ripple in a large ocean of much-needed security sector reforms. Nigeria’s crime and security challenges mean that soldiers will keep being drawn into civilian spaces where they do not want to be.

Nigeria’s people are likely to remain caught between a police force that is intensely disliked and distrusted for its corruption and brutality and a military that is less corrupt but has a similarly bad reputation for human rights abuses. Things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian and the author of the books Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture 1966-1976 and Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993). Twitter: @maxsiollun

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